Cambodian garment workers protest corporations for “$177” monthly wages, 2014

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Timing
Time Period:  
Time period notes: 
While campaigns demanding higher wages for Cambodian garment workers have spanned over decades, the campaign pressuring international clothing companies for a "$177 wage" only lasted throughout 2014.
3 January
2014
to
17 September
2014
Location and Goals
Country: 
Cambodia
Location City/State/Province: 
Phnom Penh (capital)
Goals: 
The goal of the campaign was to secure a living wage of $177 a month, in addition to obtaining better general working conditions.
 

Cambodia’s garment industry, which is responsible for over 80% of the country’s total exports, is notorious for its frequent cases of labor exploitation and worker abuse. Garment workers, of whom 90% are female, are forced to endure intimidation tactics, bribes, and short-term contracts -- all of which work to prevent unionization.

Despite the efforts of the Cambodian government and international garment corporations, who subcontract in Cambodia (E.g. H&M, Nike, and Gap), to suppress information regarding labor rights violations, details of working conditions slowly became publicized internationally. The minimum wage for garment workers was just under $100 per month in the early months of 2014 -- which is $20 below the country’s poverty level. The Coalition of Cambodian Apparel Workers Democratic Union, along with thousands of other garment laborers, pushed for the creation of a “living wage.”

Cambodia’s political climate during this time only heightened the tension around these issues. On 27 July 2013, Prime Minister Hun Sen of Cambodian People’s Party (CPP) was elected by a margin of 4%, with CPP securing 68 of the 123 total seats in the National Assembly. The primary opposition party, Cambodia National Rescue Party (CNRP), alleged that CPP had rigged the elections, but was unable to recover proof, as the National Election Committee operates under formal CPP influence.

CNRP demanded new elections and gained significant traction among laborers by promising to implement a $160 per month minimum wage, if it were to win the re-run election with the support of workers -- effectively creating a national grassroots opposition movement against Prime Minister Hun Sen and CPP.

On 3 January 2014, garment workers on Veng Sreng Street in Phnom Penh went on strike after the government refused to raise the minimum wage to $160 per month. Highly militarized police forces fired at the protesters, killing four and injuring more than twenty.

The “living wage” protests continued the next day as government authorities entered the Por Senchey District, the major location of the campaign, to force garment workers out of the area and ban demonstrations. It was reported that several of the workers refused to move and threw bottles, stones, and even petrol bombs, to protest the government’s response.

A month later, Prime Minister Hun Sen, removed the ban on protesting, but cautioned that his government would meet “anti-government acts” with fierce “pro-government support.”

Due to threats of repression, workers shifted their tactics from targeting the government to putting pressure directly on the international clothing companies that buy and subcontract in Cambodia.

While CNRP originally supported the movement for higher wages, especially during the tumultuous era of Hun Sen’s rule, the party almost immediately revoked their support once Hun Sen was officially elected president of the CPP in June.

On 17 September 2014, over 10,000 workers from 139 factories marched throughout the capital city, Phnom Penh, distributing stickers and t-shirts with the words, “We Need $177!”

The “We Need $177” campaign also gained traction in nearby countries like India and in the United States, where activists deemed 17 September as a “Day of Action.” This publicity was due in large part to efforts by organizations like United Students Against Sweatshops (USAS), which utilized social media platforms to bring awareness to the campaign and general working conditions in Cambodia.

By 12 November 2014, the Cambodian government agreed to raise the monthly minimum wage for garment workers to $128, which, nevertheless, failed to meet the original garment workers’ demand for $177.

Government officials, who were once apathetic to the requests of the people, began cracking down on protesters in March of 2015, as the poor labor conditions in Cambodia became a source of international concern. Union leaders were arrested and many of the local garment workers involved in the resistance were fired without notice.

In October of 2015, eight of the major companies operating in Cambodia, like H&M, Inditex (Zara), New Look, and others, announced plans to not only meet the living wage demanded by the garment workers, but also to improve general labor standards in the factories. Despite claims to make these amends, workers made few gains, as Helena Helmersson, the former head of sustainability at H&M, explains, “We need to learn more about the conditions in different countries to see how bad the conditions are there.” Several corporations’ attempts to meet the goals of the protesters have been bureaucratized and delayed until further notice.

In response to the government’s lack of action, USAS released an official call to action in support of real change towards a living wage and better labor standards in December of 2015. The organization created a petition urging the top five buyers in Cambodia to increase the wages of their workers and agree to acknowledge and respect future concerns of Cambodian labor unions. Additionally, USAS called for a global day of action on International Human Rights Day, 10 December 2015. Several supporters took action at H&M and Walmart locations around the United States -- they stood outside of the stores and chanted, “We Need 177!”

Despite the efforts of agents both inside and outside of Cambodia’s borders, the minimum wage for laborers failed to meet the desired living wage of $177 per month.

Research Notes
Influences: 

Garment worker movements in Bangladesh

Sources: 
Arria, Michael (2015). “H&M Has a New Labor Plan: It Looks a Lot Like All the Others.” 23 October 2015. Web site: Truthout. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/save/http://www.truth-out.org/news/item/33357-h-m-has-a-new-labor-plan-it-looks-a-lot-like-all-the-others

Brignall, Miles (2014). “Fashion retailers agree to raise minimum wage in Cambodia.” 21 September 2014. Web site: The Guardian. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170426190153/https://www.theguardian.com/business/2014/sep/21/fashion-retailers-offer-raise-minimum-wage-cambodia

Cain, Catherine (2014). “$177/Month Demand Builds in Advance of Cambodian Wage Decision.” 8 October 2014. Web site: International Labor Rights Forum. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170426190303/http://www.laborrights.org/blog/201410/177month-demand-builds-advance-cambodian-wage-decision

Campbell, Charlie (2014). “Cambodia: Four Dead As Garment Protests Turn Violent.” 3 January 2014. Web site: Time. Retrieved from

http://world.time.com/2014/01/03/in-cambodia-three-dead-as-garment-protests-turn-violent/

Kane, Gillian. “Facts on Cambodia’s Garment Industry.” Web site: Clean Clothes Campaign. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170426190407/https://cleanclothes.org/resources/publications/factsheets/cambodia-factsheet-february-2015.pdf

Kim, Tammy (2015). “Cambodian garment workers rise up and face a crackdown.” 11 March 2015. Web site: Al Jazeera. Retrieved from

https://web.archive.org/web/20170512004820/http://america.aljazeera.com/articles/2015/3/11/cambodian-garment-workers-rise-up-and-face-a-crackdown.html

Name of researcher, and date dd/mm/yyyy: 
Seimi Park, 29/03/2017